Structuring the Scholarly Imagination
Dr. Elizabeth Hall constructs a framework for Christian scholarship. Her lecture provides fundamental considerations such as the goals, boundaries, and inspirations necessary for pairing faith and academic study. She particularly engages in a conversation about what she calls the “lack of scaffolding” for Christian faculty in the way of resources for doing productive scholarship.
Among the framing questions for the conference is what challenges does Christian scholarship face? And there are a number of different challenges to Christian scholarship that we could probably talk about this afternoon including historical and sociological and ideological, and even economic factors, but the challenge that I’d like to focus on this afternoon is a much more pragmatic one.
And it’s the issue of the lack of scaffolding for Christian scholarship. It seems like in my various roles I regularly encounter thoughtful Christians who desire to engage their discipline with their faith and yet have very little idea of how to actually go about doing so.
In psychology, my field, and in Christian academia more broadly, there seem to be an abundance of books talking in the abstract about Christian scholarship, its foundations, goals, commitments, history, etc., but there seem to be many fewer resources that actually come alongside faculty in their daily labor of trying to make connections between their disciplines and their faith.
Lev Vygotsky was a Russian development psychologist and he suggested that optimal learning occurs when assistance is given within what he calls the zone of proximal development.
The zone is the distance between what the child can do by him or herself and what the child can do with guidance. And so the teacher’s role is to produce a type of scaffolding in which the teacher stays one step ahead of the student providing guidance until the student can accomplish the task alone, and then the teacher encourages the next step.
I think that you’ll find that this makes sense intuitively. If you’ve ever taught someone to do research in your discipline, for example, you’ll know that kind of progressive learning that occurs say from the first statistics course that an undergraduate in psychology takes to the complex tasks that are required of an empirical doctoral dissertation.
It would be pointless to ask a sophomore to write a doctoral dissertation. And yet we often assume that scholars who have spent most of their education mastering the skill and content of their own disciplines should be fully equipped when they get their doctorate to move ahead and do Christian scholarship well.
This ignores the fact that Christian scholarship involves at a minimum an additional set of theological skills and content, and probably requires yet a third set of skills to bring the theological piece together with the disciplinary piece. So, I’m proposing here to provide at least the start of a kind of scaffolding or menu of options of ways in which Christians have actually brought together their faith and the scholarship.
My intent this afternoon is not to be formulaic or prescriptive. I’m not proposing here’s five easy steps to become a Christian scholar. But instead I’m hoping that my thoughts will provide some guidance and perhaps will spur the imagination of those wanting to more intentionally pursue Christian scholarship.
So, to supplement my own experiences as a scholar and to move a little bit beyond my disciplinary boundaries and avoid reinventing the wheel at the same time, what I’ve done is I’ve attempted to identify and pull together some of the major works addressing Christian scholarship that have been written in about the last 20 years or so.
I’ve looked through them for some of the implicit or explicit modes of engagement with the disciplines recommended by the authors of those works. So, in the time we have together, I will just briefly offer a broad definition of Christian scholarship. I’ll be presenting my typology of modes of engagement and then I’m going to suggest some factors that regulate the selection of specific modes of engagement. In terms of a definition of Christian scholarship, I propose to use the term or the phrase Christian scholarship descriptively to refer to a variety of ways in which Christians who hold to the underlying unity of truth in a world created by God through Jesus Christ, strive to bring together their character, convictions, and practices, as shaped by their faith and their academic disciplines.
My intent in defining scholarship in this way is not to provide a set of defining criteria by which we might examine a specific piece of scholarship and decide, judge whether or not in fact it meets the criteria for Christian scholarship or not.
So, that’s not what I’m trying to do here. Instead I’m trying to provide just descriptively a very broad umbrella, a big tent for Christian scholarship. One that will accommodate the work of Christian scholars that work in a variety of different disciplines, a variety of different work settings in order to move on to what I think is the more interesting question. What are the modes of engagement that Christians might utilize in order to meaningfully engage their faith and their discipline?
Now, most references to Christian scholarship I have found focus on how Christian beliefs or convictions influence scholarship, but I also want to briefly acknowledge the role that Christian practices and value commitments play in scholarship. To do Christian scholarship well we obviously have a responsibility to know our bibles well.
But I think we also have a responsibility to properly form our moral intuitions as these do in fact play a role in some of the modes that I will be discussing. In addition our Christian practices and values may also influence not just the product of our scholarship, the end goal of it, but also the process of scholarship. For example, awareness of our infinitude, an important concept theologically, may lead us to approach our subject matter with epistemological humility. Love of God and neighbor, may lead us to work on certain projects and not others.
Hospitality may lead us to interact with criticism of our work in non-defensive and engaging ways. Okay, let’s talk specifically then about these modes of engagement. We want to address modes of engagement that are available across the spectrum of activities that are involved in scholarship. And so I’ve included here modes that have to do with motivation, with epistemology, diverse ways in which Christian commitments influence the content of scholarship and then finally those that have to do with the application or outcomes of the scholarship. So, let’s begin speaking about motivation for scholarship.
Several authors I found speak to the motivational function of the Christian faith and enriching scholarship. While all seem eager to avoid accusations of triumphalism, they nonetheless speak of faith as providing a multitude of benefits to the task of scholarship. William Dyrness for example, speaks of the hope provided by faith. “It’s hard to understand how some can insist “the Christian faith puts people in a box. “The opposite is in fact true. “The faith is not a box but a window. “Christian convictions about creation and redemption “make the world open to its transcendent purpose “and to the future that God has planned for it. “Through his spirit God has revealed to us “what no eye has seen nor ear heard, “nor the heart of man conceived.”
Anthropologist Jenell Williams Paris proposes that love is the motivation that underlies Christian scholarship. Coming from a pietist perspective, she points to the limitations of reason because of its detachment from virtue and argues instead that love merges knowledge and practice. Duane Litfin sees all Christian scholarship as having a common end, a unified Christ centered understanding of the world.
However, in his view the motivation is not limited to knowing the creation but also the creator. This is a theme that is also picked up on by Mark Noll who also ties the motivation for Christian scholarship to knowledge of Christ.
He writes, “Since the reality of Jesus Christ sustains the world, “and all that is in it, “so too should the reality of Jesus Christ “sustain the most wholehearted, unabashed, “and unembarrassed efforts to understand the world “and all that is in it.” Pat Gold draws the concept of the lordship of Jesus Christ as motivation for Christian scholarship. He writes, “Christ as Lord means that he is Lord of all aspects “of our lives including the research projects “we engage in and even the very questions that we ask. “Lordship unto Jesus demands that all aspects of our being “including our thought life in academic work “lead to and result in love and worship of God and others.”
Nick Wolterstorff, who is here with us, also visions the motivations for scholarship in deeply personal or perhaps interpersonal terms as an act of gratitude. So, Christian scholarship may be fueled by hope, confidence, love and gratitude and may be aimed at knowing God and his world better and that submitting to Christ lordship in all areas of our life.
These motivational factors that have been mentioned across many books by many authors suggest the imports of scholarship nourished by spiritual practices. Not only to know more deeply the content of our faith, but to manifest more the fruit of the spirit in hope, love and gratitude, and to have our moral sensibilities sharpened.
Let’s move on to epistemological assumptions and methods. Every discipline has a set of epistemological assumptions and methodological practices that govern the practice of the discipline and some of these are explicitly taught. For example in courses on methodology.
In addition to the ones that are explicitly taught, almost every discipline has certain pre-theoretical and largely implicit assumptions and commitments or first principles that shape the way that the discipline is practiced. In spite of the recognition by many in the field that these implicit assumptions exist, they continue to mold the disciplines because they’re embedded in the methods and theories and discourses into which each successive generation of scholars is socialized.
Furthermore, in some of these disciplines many perhaps sometimes most of the scholars seem to operate in continued unawareness of these assumptions. For example in my own field of psychology, logical positivism has had enduring influence on what counts as good scholarship, even though this particular theory was long ago discredited in philosophical circles.
And so positivist beliefs are widely held appearing as kind of an unspoken grammar and privileging reductionistic and mechanistic theories and quantitative and experimental methodologies.
Similarly political scientist Jean Bethke Elhstain describing her own graduate experience noted, “The by far most common form of indoctrination “or inculcation was neither political nor religious “but instead methodological and epistemological.” She went on to note that there was little or no room for challenge or interpretation or critique of these ideas.
Now the problem is that many of these assumptions and commitments are in fact in conflict with Christian beliefs about ontology and epistemology and in ethics, and so consequently in some disciplines, Christian scholars have in fact challenged the very rules by which the disciplinary game is played. Noting the presence of these pre-theoretical commitments and sometimes suggesting alternatives that are more consistent with Christian commitments. Content of scholarships is a third area in which I have some modes to recommend.
A variety of ways in which Christian beliefs, values, and practices influence the content of the scholarly process have been proposed. This variety is perhaps explained by the fact that academic disciplines vary considerably in the focus of their scholarship and in the methodological approaches. So, not all strategies will be relevant to all disciplines and a variety of strategies are in fact necessary to make the concept of Christian scholarship relevant to all of the disciplines.
Now, given my own disciplinary background, I’m largely gonna draw on research with which I am most familiar. So, you’ll be hearing some psychological examples. In particular, I wanted to clarify that when I’m drawing on examples from my own work, I’m using these not because I see my work in any way as kind of an exemplar of some of these, but simply because this is the scholarship that I’m most familiar with, so please excuse my overuse perhaps of my own examples.
The broadest way in which Christian commitments make a difference in scholarship is in the scholarly agendas that they influence. Not only beliefs but also values and even affections, emotions that are influenced by Christian commitments are relevant here. So, Christian values for example, determine what are legitimate projects of study.
Moral sensibilities that have been shaped by Christian practices might render some projects ethically unacceptable, while highlighting others that are important and consistent with broad Christian callings. Christian beliefs are also, of course, important in providing direction. So, Marsden for example, highlights the role of beliefs as follows, he says, “Serious religious beliefs help shape “not only our overt ways of valuing things “but also our priorities. “What do we see as important to study? “What is it about that subject which makes it interesting? “What are the questions we ask “that will organize our interpretations of this topic?”
These same commitments may direct us to assent to certain premises that we think are relevant to our scholarship, while also rejecting others. Now, sometimes Christian beliefs do not merely direct toward some topics and away from others, but instead they actually have heuristic value in and of themselves in suggesting hypotheses or new ways of approaching the interpretation of data.
This is perhaps the mode that French philosopher Etienne Gilson had in mind in his Gifford Lectures early in the 20th century when he proposed that the Christian faith suggests various perspectives which are then worked out by use of reason. In these lectures he quotes Lessing as saying, “The great religious truths were not rational “when they were revealed, “but they were revealed so that they might become so.”
It’s possible that the heuristic value of Christianity is not limited to its beliefs, but is also mediated by the emotions it shapes. So, in addition to directing us toward certain topics, our religiously influenced affections may provide us with insights into our subject matter that we might not otherwise have. Goethe is widely quoted as having said, “A man doesn’t learn to understand anything “unless he loves it.”
So, the following quote that I’ll show to you, while not alluding directly to emotions certainly appears to be broader than simply cognitive beliefs. Engineer Walter Bradley first quotes C.S. Lewis who said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe “that the sun has risen. “Not only because I see it, “but because by it I see everything else.”
And then he goes on to explain, “Christianity provides a different kind of light “that will give us insights that we will not find “just by poking around, “much like black light, “ultraviolet wavelengths, “will cause a display that is sensitive “to ultraviolet light to radiate, “allowing one to see things that simply are not “visible within the normal visible spectrum of radiation.” A second mode affecting content is that of confirming. This is perhaps the most basic of strategies for Christian scholarship that have been described.
And simply consists of lining up insights from the disciplines with the corresponding Christian conviction. For example, the emphasis on love and respect in Paul’s instructions to married couples in Ephesians 5 is echoed in the words of marital researcher John Gottman, who after many years of research and clinical practice wrote, “I’ve learned that most couples I’ve worked with “over the years really wanted just two things “from their marriage, love and respect.” Evaluating is a third mode.
One of the most frequently cited strategies in the literature on Christian scholarship is Wolterstorff’s use of religious beliefs as control beliefs. He writes that the scholar ought to reject certain theories on the ground that they conflict or do not comport well with the belief content of his or her faith, and in addition the scholar ought to devise theories which comport as well as possible with or are at least consistent with the belief content of his or her faith.
So, using these Christian beliefs to set the boundaries on what is or is not acceptable illustrates how Christian convictions can be used as standards against which to evaluate the content of the disciplines. A function that Wolterstorff sees as absolutely central to the work of the Christian scholar.
Often the critiquing function of the control beliefs will be directed at the pre-theoretical assumptions and commitments of problematic theories which form part of the initial knowledge base and disciplines that rely primarily on reason and influence the interpretive process in disciplines that rely on reason to make sense of empirical data. Some of these assumptions have to do with views on what constitutes reality.
So, for example, Marsden and Plantinga as late as this morning in his talk critiqued the widespread influence of scientific naturalism. Other assumptions have to do with epistemology as I noted a little bit earlier, and yet other assumptions have to do more narrowly with the particular field of study such as the influence of mechanistic determinism in the sciences, secular humanism in the humanities and social sciences, anti-realism in the humanities or with ethics and basic values and some of the applied disciplines.
Now, the opposite may also occur in the process of conducting Christian scholarship. Sometimes the evaluation goes in the opposite direction. So, sometimes the data or theories of the discipline appear incompatible with certain Christian convictions and lead to reevaluation of the Christian convictions. If careful study of the issue suggests that the conviction is faulty, perhaps based on inadequate interpretation of the relevant biblical texts, then it may occur that the Christian conviction is what is ultimately changed.
Alternatively, Christian beliefs may allow for more than one legitimate interpretation of the relevant biblical texts, and the content of the discipline may lead the scholar to conclude that one of those biblical interpretations is to be preferred over the other as it is more consistent with a disciplinary content as well as being consistent with the biblical data.
Clarifying is another mode relevant to the content of the disciplines. Utilizing the data or theories of a discipline to clarify the meaning or significance of a biblical passage or principle is sometimes the way that a discipline is engaged. For example, in a paper that I co-wrote a few years ago, I drew on two psychological theories of suffering to clarify how God’s response to Job in the final chapters of the account of Job affected the dramatic changes in Job’s stance toward God and toward his circumstances that are seen in the narrative.
An alteration of his stance that sometimes at first glance seems a little puzzling, but makes a lot of sense in light of the psychological theories. Elaborating. This is when we utilize the data or theories of a discipline to extend the understanding or specific application of a biblical passage or principle.
For example, the bible instructs parents to discipline their children for example, in Proverbs 13:24. But the details that are provided are a little sketchy in terms of what this should look like. And so psychological research on the affects of different disciplinary styles can assist in applying those instructions well.
A more comprehensive view of any aspect of reality is possible when we bring together insights from our discipline with relevant faith based convictions and allow them to engage with each other. Out of the reflective discourse that occurs at the conjunction of two kinds of knowledge there can emerge a fuller and more complete picture of that part of reality. So, for example, in recent years my research has focused on issues of embodiment.
And in attempting to understand the embodied aspect of our experience, I’ve drawn both on theological insight and on literature from the social sciences. Now, theology and the social sciences compliment each other very nicely. Theology provides answers with respect to the intended functioning or purposes of the human person and of course of the body of the human person by telling us what they were created for, while the social sciences focus on description, documenting in a wealth of detail the actual functioning of the body.
The actual things that the body does for us. And so bringing both of these answers together can provide us with a more complete understanding of what the body is for to give a specific example of this process of complimenting. Reflecting. Mark Noll suggests that in the creative arts an important task of the Christian scholar is to accurately reflect reality. And by this he does not mean that Christians should always engage in naive realism.
Rather, he says, “If atonement theology suggests that narrative “is basic to human expression, “including artistic expression, “the question of narrative shape is also important. “Since atonement involves tremendous complexity “and great mystery, “the best narratives will not be simplistic.” And he goes on to critique Manichean and heroic and nihilistic narratives, and then says, “Rather the best narratives will be morally complex. “Such morally complex narratives are most satisfying “because in terms of atonement theology, “they are most true to life.”
Our Christian faith can also provide a moral compass in terms of the content of our disciplines. Now, the sciences, including the social sciences that I’m apart of, purport to be morally neutral, and a lot of times they kind of self-consciously adopt a descriptive stance, but it still holds true that particularly in the human sciences the work of the discipline does in fact involve moral values.
Psychologist Eric Johnson notes that our faith-based convictions can provide important guidance in areas where the sciences really are very ill-prepared to do so. And he calls this the axiological role of the bible. Even outside of the natural and human sciences morality does in fact confuse scholarship. So Marsden writes, “Scholars like all people are moralists. “Nothing is more common at least in scholarship “having to do with human behavior “than moral judgments, “whether explicit or, “more often implicit. “Moral judgments like other commitments, “help determine what subjects people study, “what questions they ask about their subjects, “and what answers they will give to those questions.”
In his own field, history, he notes the influence of moral judgments showing up in two ways. He writes, “How do I implicitly or explicitly evaluate “various developments as positive, negative, “or something in between? “And how do these evaluations shape my narrative?” Reclaiming. Arthur Holmes, one of the primary founders of the integration movement, notes the creative and redemptive influence Christianity has had on the development of Western culture, including the development of science.
He encourages Christian scholars to do the task of recovering and claiming this history as models of Christian scholarship. So several folks have done this. I believe Plantinga has some work in that area. But Mark Noll has provided in a recent book a brief history of Christianity and science that challenges the popular conceptions of the relationship as being primarily characterized by tension and antagonism.
I think in many of the disciplines that we are apart of this work of retrieving the history is an important one. Contextualizing. Contextualizing consists of placing the data or theories of the discipline into the biblical framework so that its meaning and significance becomes apparent. Psychologist Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen notes that all disciplines have two faces; a logical face, which follows the methodological rules of each discipline, and an interpretive face.
With respect to the interpretive face, she states that “scholars attach meanings to what they study “and perceive structures in it on the basis “of highly personal intuitions and belief structures.” Now, when these personal intuitions and belief structures are formed by the Christian faith, they will shape the interpretations in Christian ways.
Much as a Marxist scholar will interpret facts across many disciplines in light of power structures. A Christian might see the thread of God’s interactions with humanity in the data. George Marsden offers the analogy of a gestalt picture for understanding how our Christian commitments influence our interpretation. “We organize experience according to available patterns “that the mind has at its disposal. “To the extent that we deal with “many aspects of individual facts, “our scholarship will be identical to “that of non-Christians. “At higher levels of interpretation, however, “we might differ radically on the overall meaning “or relative importance of the facts. “Background beliefs will have a vast influence “on which pattern we see when we look at the facts.”
In addition to Christian background beliefs that focus on a specific area of study that we might be addressing in our scholarship, our Christian beliefs also include a grand story, a metanarrative with several important acts: creation, fall, redemption, sanctification, and glorification. Stephen Evans notes that this narrative needs to become the frame or context in terms of which everything else is understood.
He calls it the basic or foundational narrative in terms of which we understand the world. And so the picture presented is of a story of history as the outline of a puzzle, or the overall plot of a story. Individual puzzle pieces, small portions of narrative only take on full meaning when placed within their context. And in similar ways, very specific pieces of scholarship might take on additional meanings, more nuances when we take the time to place it within the overall narrative of our Christian context.
The fourth area where different modes have been proposed is in the outcomes of our scholarship. Three kinds of outcomes of scholarship are endorsed by proponents of Christian scholarship: service, enhancing our knowledge of reality, and worship. Philosopher Stephen Evans’ definition of Christian scholarship includes the notion that it is scholarship that is done to further the kingdom of God and is carried out as part of a calling by citizens of that kingdom.
The desire to benefit others may lead the scholar to propose distinctively Christian applications of the results of scholarship to the problems of human life. Wolterstorff proposes that our vision of the kingdom of God be that of shalom, and that our scholarly efforts specifically address issues of injustice around the world in pursuit of that shalom.
Similarly, theologian William Dyrness notes that Christian faith requires response to nature as well as understanding it. He means by this that becoming aware of problems in the natural world or in human suffering though our scholarship should result in Christian’s in a sense of responsibility to do something about them. Philosopher William Hasker notes a second outcome of Christian scholarship which he calls worldview contributions.
In this mode of Christian scholarship the question to be asked is what specific contribution does this discipline make to the Christian vision of reality? How does it enable us to understand God and his world and our fellow human beings differently than if the insights of the discipline were not available? What insights, projects, and activities does the discipline make possible? In short, what difference does the discipline make for Christians who are not its students and practitioners?
Hasker sees the task of the Christian scholar not merely to work Christianly within each separate discipline, but to contribute to an overall vision of reality in the light of Christ for the benefit of the Christian community. Scholarship has also been conceptualized as a call to worship. As an example, Duane Litfin presents his vision for scholarship in chemistry. I want them not only to be fascinated and delighted by the intricacies of chemical behavior, but also to realize that what they’re exploring is the handiwork of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I also want them to see at every moment what these things are telling them about the One they know as their Savior so that in the end they are lifted up to him, even in a chemistry course. Now, there are a number of modes of engagement available to Christian scholars and so what is it that makes the difference in terms of which particular modes are engaged in by any given scholar?
Among the factors that undoubtedly influence this decision, I am going to focus on three; the scholar’s discipline, the level of specificity of the scholarship, and the audience for which the scholar is writing. Academic disciplines vary in the degree to which the content of their disciplines overlap with content that is addressed by faith. Marsden distinguishes between fields that primarily focus on empirical investigation and those that touch on issues of wider significance in meaning. He writes, “So on topics that have most to do with interpretation, “and with a larger significance in meaning “of humans in relation to each other and the universe, “faith related perspectives will have the most bearing. “Such implications are more often apparent “in the humanities and social sciences “than in the hard sciences.”
He also notes that religious commitments will have more of an influence in disciplines where religion is explicitly a topic that is studied, as well as in disciplines where moral judgments are made. Put another way this continuum can be described as one across which the noetic affects of sin vary. Emil Brunner noted this many years ago, stating, “the nearer anything lies to that center of existence “where we are concerned with the whole, “that is with man’s relation to God “and the being of the person, “the greater is the disturbance of “rational knowledge by sin; “the farther away anything lies from this center, “the less is the disturbance felt, “and the less difference is there between “knowing as a believer or as an unbeliever.”
Philosopher William Hasker makes another distinction between theoretical and applied disciplines. He argues that he epistemological and metaphysical issues that we’ve discussed earlier, in Christian scholarship are more relevant to the theoretical disciplines. And in contrast, there are issues are application in service that are more relevant to the applied disciplines. He notes that applying theory brings up a distinct set of questions that must be addressed by the Christian scholar.
What are the implications and results when this theory is put into practice? And how do these affect, coincide or conflict, with ones ultimate objectives as a Christian? He also sees questions of ethics and value as surfacing more frequently in the applied disciplines than in the theoretical disciplines. Scholars in all disciplines do scholarship that varies in the level of abstraction. And so, when scholarship is done at very specific levels, like conducting tightly controlled empirical observations in the sciences, Christian commitments may make very little difference.
But as the scope of the scholarship becomes broader, involving interpretation, it’s likely that questions of significance or meaning will be more influenced by matters of faith. So, even in the hard sciences, there will be some scholarship that is done at this very concrete level, but even in the hard sciences, levels of abstraction are reached when theories and grand theories are attempted. Some of the modes of engagement that I’ve described are in fact consistent with the practices of the secular academy.
Although one thing that I’ve noticed in interdisciplinary dialogue is that what is acceptable in the secular academy actually seems to vary quite a bit from discipline to discipline. But other approaches, other modes, are intended to challenge the practices of the secular academy, and still others seem most suited for audiences that share similar Christian commitments. Psychologist Eric Johnson, in describing Christian scholarship in psychology and using the language of integration, that predominates in that discipline, distinguishes between strategic integration and maximal integration.
Strategic forms of Christian scholarship use the rules of discourse of the secular discipline, but find ways to advance a Christian agenda to the extent that it is allowed or tolerated by the discipline. So this might take the form of addressing Christian topics through the lens of the discipline, or bringing topics suggested by Christian commitments into the field of study. It may even involve challenging the rules of the discipline by pointing out the weaknesses of some of the rules of the discipline in the rules’ ability to help the discipline achieve its aims. So, arguing from within the discipline for the change of rules.
Or even noting times when disciplinary practices fall short of the discipline’s own ideals or standards. In contrast, maximal Christian scholarship is practiced in Johnson’s words, “by, within, and for the Christian community”, and because of that is not constrained by disciplinary rules. Since the goal in maximal scholarship is the unification of knowledge about disciplinary content, so the unification, for example, of knowledge about human beings in psychology, it involves all sources of knowledge that are relevant to the content area. And so, the sources would also include scripture in the Christian tradition, as well as content that comes specifically from the discipline.
Whether any given scholar practices strategic or maximal Christian integration will be influenced in part by the intended audience of the specific project. Now to this point, I’ve attempted to be primarily descriptive in my comments on Christian scholarship. Before concluding, however, I’d like to go out on the limb a little bit and provide some prescriptive comments. For a variety of reasons, which I suspect are primarily undergirded by socialization pressures to conform to disciplinary norms, many Christians in the academy intentionally keep their Christianity out of their scholarship.
At an interdisciplinary Christian academic conference I attended some years ago, a presenter was asked how his Christian faith came to bear on his discipline. In response he stated that he engaged in the practices of his religious tradition regularly, then sought to be the best scholar he could be. Further interaction with his comments made it very clear that from his perspective there was no connection between his religious practices and his scholarly work.
While one might wonder if his Christian commitments had managed to sneak into his scholarship in spite of his best efforts to keep them out, his response still puzzles me. With the wealth of motivational and intellectual resources offered by our faith, it would seem to me that wise engagement in scholarship by Christians would involve, at a minimum, that the scholarship be motivated by one’s Christian values and commitments on the basis of Jesus is Lordship in all aspects of our life.
Furthermore, awareness of potential conflicts between the methods and predominant paradigms of the discipline and one’s Christian values and commitments would seem necessary for responsibly engaging in the work of scholarship by people who are Christians.
Even if that particular individual did not him or herself engage in actively critiquing or doing scholarship in the critique of those methods and paradigms. In terms of the areas of content and outcomes a couple of concepts seem relevant, those of vocation and those of community. Christian values and moral sensibilities should probably influence the content of scholarship, even if it’s only indirectly, in the Christian scholar who has been formed by the Holy Spirit.
And it would seem that if we are addressing topics of scholarship in which scripture or theology overlap, in which scripture or theology has something to say, it would make sense, I think, to be aware of what those things are.
So, all other factors being equal, I would argue that maximal Christian scholarship should be preferred, given its potential to more fully understand reality and God’s agenda for human flourishing. But whether or not the scriptural and theological insights are explicitly brought into the scholarship, whether or not the outcome is specifically the known good of others, may depend on these factors that I’ve outlined. The discipline, the specific area within the discipline, and the specific audience to which any given scholar is called. So, I think the concept of an individual’s vocation or calling is important to consider with respect to whether the scholarship is explicitly Christian or not.
These prescriptive comments that I have offered are, I think, fairly modest. Others who have written on Christian scholarship offer much stronger prescriptions in this area. Paul Moser, who we’ll have the opportunity to listen to later on this afternoon for example, argues that Jesus’ love commands are relevant and binding to those who recognize Jesus as Lord. And that his commands to love God and neighbor imply in Moser’s words that, “our projects are acceptable only to the extent “that they contribute to satisfying the love commands.”
So in his view, our scholarly projects should be prioritized according to whether they allow us to be obedient to Jesus’ calling to love others. And interestingly, Moser actually explicitly disallows vocation or calling to provide scholars with exemptions to fulfilling the command to love others through our scholarship.
Although he does note that this love to others may be expressed differently depending on people’s vocation and giftedness. In addition to the concept of vocation, the concept of community seems important to me. This is a theme that has already come up this morning. But it seems like scholars are part of a group of Christians working in their area of study. The full spectrum of Christian scholarship should be seen best as the task of the community rather than of the individual scholar.
So that some might do the basic research, others might provide critique of disciplinary assumptions, yet others develop practical applications of the work. Perhaps this observation carries with it the prescriptive encouragement to actively engage with other Christians in the discipline. The notion of community also suggests the possibility of collaborative scholarship. In our age of specialization and expansion of knowledge, it might be that one individual is not equipped in all cases to do maximal Christian scholarship well.
So collaborations between scholars in theology, Biblical studies, and the disciplines, may be the way forward. In either case, Christian scholars can be encouraged in their work knowing that they’re a part of a larger body of believers who are working together to enlarge human understanding and contribute to human flourishing. My hope is that this brief attempt to begin to provide a scaffold for Christian scholarship will also encourage believers to give Christian scholarship a try.
Man: Thank you very much. That was an excellent presentation. I wonder if you could elaborate more on the difference between the strategic and the maximal? Because as a graduate of the anthropology department, I found my self in the discipline where some 80 or 90% of the people in the discipline are not only not Christians, but actively hostile to Christians.
I was wondering if the differences, sort of the covertness of it, if strategic integration is sort of the playing by the rules of the discipline, but with underlying Christian convictions. From my perspective that was the only option that we have in my discipline for example. So, I’d like to know what the real difference is?
Well, anthropology is actually an interesting case. I think that psychology is similar though I think the situation in anthropology is even more extreme than it is in psychology. So, obviously, audience is going to be, I think, the biggest factor in looking at that. Now, in psychology, Christian scholarship is not the language that we use.
So, we talk of psychology of religion and then we talk about integration, and those are the ways that we define kind of the strategic and the maximal. And so it does seem like even in anthropology as in psychology, there are a number of ways in which you can influence your discipline. For example, I know that anthropology is loaded with theories that would seem to be rather anti-Christian in some of the basic premises. But there’s probably some good insights in those theories where you can take the good insights without having to buy into some of the really problematic aspects of them.
And do your scholarship in a way that very carefully avoids falling into the pitfalls that are implicit there. So, if your calling is to be salt and light in the community of secular anthropologists, you might have to tread very carefully and be very thoughtful in the way that you write up your research and the conclusions that you draw from it. In psychology, you know, we have to do that as well.
Anything that we can’t account for in our empirical methods is called error. Well, I think that God’s providence might fall into that error category sometimes, right. And so, as a Christian, as I’m explaining the results of my studies, I need to be careful not to dismiss notions of free will and of God’s intervention in people’s lives in those ways. I should note, though, that anthropology, like psychology, is also really rich, ripe, in terms of its potential for maximal integration.
In the sense that it’s very relevant for a lot of rich applications in Christian ministry. I mean I know that it’s a foundational discipline for a lot of people doing missions work for example. So, it would seem like there’s some really nice opportunities for using the tools and the insights that are provided by anthropology in order to benefit the Christian community. Does that answer your question a little bit? Okay.
Man: Dr. Hall, I think I may have not absorbed the Brunner quote. But if I understood it correctly, he’s saying that the closer you get to the parts of humanity that relate to God, the greater the potential for disturbance. So, in my mind that means in maybe psychology, and maybe anthropology, that’s where the greatest potential for problem is.
But it seems like we usually talk about problems in things that seem more peripheral to that. We’re really big on complaining about evolution. Am I understanding that how you use that quote correctly?
I was thinking about it less in terms of particular theories within the discipline and more in terms of the disciplines themselves. Although I would think it would have relevance. We would have to apply it a little differently, but scholars that have worked on the basis of Brunner’s insights have developed almost kind of a series of concentric circles where you have, for example, theology smack in the middle, that’s gonna be the place where there’s gonna be most potential for problems because that’s where sin is at its core as a rebellion against God.
And so, scholars in that area who are Christians, might want to be very, very careful. And then you have the ones that apply to human beings as people made in the image of God. There’s all kinds of problems that are possible there too.
And so you have the psychology and the anthropology and sociology where you’re gonna have to tread very carefully. And then the natural sciences are probably going to be on the outside of the distorting affects of sin on our capacity to perceive and understand the world are probably gonna be much less in those areas than in others.
Man: Thank you for the presentation. I wanted to ask, right here, I wanted to ask you already gave a little example when you were talking about interpreting error as a possibility of including providence or free will and stuff like that, but I was actually gonna ask if you could provide another example of in your field of psychology, where your faith has directed your research, in which direction you took it, or what kind of hypotheses you decided to test?
Starting even in terms of methodology, in psychology it’s a big enough field that you find a little bit of everything in that field. But as I mentioned, there’s certain methodologies that definitely are the ones that if you’re a really good scholar you’re going to do those ones. The ones that are very reductionistic, every kind of human behavior or attribute is reduced down to a number that you can plug into statistical equations that will give you the cause and effect structures of human beings.
Now, one of the ways in which my scholarship has been influenced is to reject that as the only mode of understanding human beings. I think it’s interesting and valuable, but I also do qualitative research, which has been more at the fringes of what is acceptable in the field of psychology because I think issues of meaning and non-reductionistic concepts and theories can emerge from qualitative research more easily than from quantitative research. So, I do both. That would be another example of how my Christian beliefs have influenced my scholarship.
Man: So, I’m struck by your comment the question before last about how the distortion ought to be less in the natural sciences, which seems like conventional wisdom. But as I listen to you very sympathetically, I’m struggling with the distinction between basic research and application. So, the conventional wisdom in the sciences, at least, is that the knowledge is morally not valued, knowledge I good, the problem is what we do with it.
And yet, the line does not seem to be bright at all, especially in biology these days. And apart from that, the application frequently is the justification for the basic science. For example, I wouldn’t hold that telomere research was immoral somehow, but trying to apply it to anti-aging to live forever probably is. And yet, I can think of things in synthetic biology that are nowhere near application that don’t endanger any human subject and yet I would hold are immoral on the face of it, but never to be attempted.
So, how do you sort of get it? Because I get uncomfortable with that because it sounds like suppressing inquiry and that’s not a place where we want to be. Can you help me kind of see my way through that within your framework?
I don’t know because I haven’t thought much about the issues in science. So, I’m not sure explicitly in the example that you’re giving about in synthetics what to say there. Would it involve human subjects at all?
Man: I think of things that would. Trying to make bare bones human cell. Just to see what the minimal things it would takes for a human cell to want. Why do we need to know?
So perhaps there the place where it becomes moral is that it interfaces with who we are as human beings and maybe in the back of your mind that’s what’s problematic. And in terms of Brunner’s insights then, it brings us back in to the fact that since we are made in God’s image, there’s something about us in terms of our value or worth might make us uncomfortable in terms of messing with it.
But your comments earlier, not the specific one at the end, just your overall comments makes me think that perhaps that concentric circle thing that I was talking about needs to be modified so it’s three dimensional so that the insight that the basic science and the more we get to levels of that abstractness and application needs to build on that model as a separate dimension.
Woman: Liz, I want to add my gratitude for your presentation. I want to go back to your definition of Christian scholarship because I was intrigued. You said, it’s the ways Christians strive to bring together their character, conviction and practices as shaped by their faith and academic disciplines.
I guess, partly, it’s the lens through which I’m seeing and listening, but I’m wondering if you could comment on the character aspect? Because what I think I heard mostly, or what I guess I paid attention to was mostly the beliefs, conviction and the practices. I’m wondering if you want to comment at all on the character aspect. Not only how it influences doing scholarship, but maybe also how does the Christian scholarship influence the character of the scholar? I don’t know.
That’s an interesting question that I haven’t thought much about. But in response to your question, it seems like a couple of places where the character would make a difference is that there’s an awful lot said in the Bible about who we are as people and that almost seems to be emphasized more than what we do. Motivation is a huge component.
And so when we think about the process of scholarship and our presence in the scholarly community, not just from unbelievers, but especially I would think among colleagues that don’t know Christ. Who we are as people and how we engage around issues of scholarship is incredibly important.
So, issues of integrity, and striving to do the best work that we can for God’s glory and non-defensiveness in our interactions, humility, all of those seem to be character based and would make a big difference in the ways that we go about engaging in the scholarly community and doing scholarship. So, that’s one piece of it. And also, at least in my mind, moral sensibilities are tied to character. And so, it would seem that it’s going a little bit into psychology here. There’s some evidence that in terms of our ability to judge or evaluate things cognitively, there’s actually an emotional component of that that is much further down that when we initially hear an idea the first thing is not a logical, well, I agree or disagree with that, but there’s this more basic kind of gut sense for or against something else.
And then it becomes more specific emotional reactions and then ultimately we are able to figure out what it is that makes us either like something or find it distasteful. And so there’s a sense in which I think character has to do with forming our gut. It has to do with who we are as people is going to make a big difference in terms of what ultimately is going to be critique or acceptance of ideas because it’s shaped by who we are as people and our very most basic responses to the world and to ideas around us.
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